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What is bile duct cancer?

Bile duct cancer is when abnormal cells in the bile ducts start to divide and grow in an uncontrolled way. The cells can eventually grow into surrounding healthy tissues or organs such as the gallbladder or pancreas, and may spread to other areas of the body. 

Bile duct cancer is also called cholangiocarcinoma (pronounced kol-an-gee-oh-car-sin-oh-ma). 

The bile ducts

The bile ducts are part of the digestive system. They are the tubes that connect the liver and gallbladder to the small bowel. The bile ducts carry bile. This is a fluid that helps to digest food by breaking down fat. The liver makes bile which is stored in the gallbladder.

Diagram showing the position of the gallbladder and bile ducts

There are two main bile ducts in the liver – the right and left hepatic ducts. They join just outside the liver to form the common hepatic duct. 

Another bile duct comes from the gallbladder. This is called the cystic duct.

The hepatic duct and cystic duct join together to form the common bile duct. 

The common bile duct passes behind the pancreas and joins the pancreatic duct. The combined ducts open into the small bowel, where bile is released. The release of bile is controlled by a valve. 

When we eat, the gallbladder releases bile into the small bowel to help digest food.

Diagram showing the position of the bile ducts

Where bile duct cancer develops

Doctors divide bile duct cancers into 3 groups depending on where they develop:

  • intrahepatic region – this means within the liver and includes the right and left hepatic ducts and their smaller branches
  • perihilar (hilar) region – this is just outside the liver where the right and left hepatic ducts meet
  • distal region – this includes the bile ducts that run through the pancreas to the small bowel

Cancers that start in the bile ducts outside the liver are called extrahepatic bile duct cancers.

Diagram showing the groups of bile ducts

How common is bile duct cancer

In the UK around 1,900 people are diagnosed each year with intrahepatic bile duct cancer. Around 530 people are diagnosed with extrahepatic bile duct cancer.

The number of people getting bile duct cancer has slowly increased in the last few years. It is more common in men than women. Your risk of getting bile duct cancer increases as you get older. Most people who develop it are over 65.

Last reviewed: 
12 Jan 2021
Next review due: 
12 Jan 2024
  • Incidence statistics provided by the Statistical Information Team at Cancer Research UK using data from the Office for National Statistics and the regional cancer registries in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and using the latest data (annual average number of cases in the UK between 2013 – 2015).

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